It says a great deal about the enduring mystique of José Mourinho in England that after two Premier League victories, the latest this slow-burn but ultimately comfortable defeat of Leicester City, at least one national radio show was talking up the possibility that Chelsea could end up not just winning the title but remaining top of the table from start to finish.
On the face of it there are only two problems with this. First, every other team in the Premier League, most notably Manchester City, who look an ominously well-seasoned champion squad. And secondly Chelsea themselves, and the variables of what is, for all the calibre of their recruits, a relatively new group of players.
For their first home fixture of the season Chelsea showed six changes from the same stage last year. And while Diego Costa, Cesc Fábregas and Nemanja Matic already looks a distinct upgrade on Fernando Torres, Ramires and a then 35-year-old Frank Lampard, these are still very early days. It was notable that in a relatively relaxed post-match ramble Mourinho dwelt on one of his pet theories, the hope that one happy, distant day Fifa will allow managers to take time-outs mid-match to rejig their team, in much the same way Louis van Gaal used the mid-half drinks break with Holland at the World Cup.
“I hope I am still in football when they give the coach the chance to stop the game during the first half once and during the second half because you can make the game much better,” Mourinho mused. “Imagine today, I would have stopped the game in the 10th minute.” Happily the prospect of managers infringing on the action even more profoundly than they already do is still some way off. But Mourinho’s yearning for yet more tinkering is a mark not just of his own high-mileage approach, but also of the sluggish start his team made here against a mobile and well-organised Leicester.
As was quite clear during a listless first half, Mourinho clearly feels there is plenty of work still to do with this team. Never mind streaking away ahead of the pack, Chelsea’s Premier League season is likely to shape up around a run of matches starting next month during which over the course of seven weeks they will play Manchester City away, Arsenal at home, Manchester United away and Liverpool away. The shake down before then will be key.
The early signs are certainly encouraging. Here Costa not only scored a second crucial opening goal against the kind of opposition Chelsea struggled with last season, he also showed the broader qualities of his break-out season at Atlético Madrid. Costa can finish, scores different kinds of goals, and is quick enough to provide a threat to a high defensive line. More than this he is always willing to work. At times in the second half he could be seen carrying the ball out of the full-back positions, supporting Matic in central midfield and generally lifting his team-mates and the home crowd. He may have had a fretful World Cup, but Costa looks a promising Premier League signing.
Of more concern is the midfield. With Fábregas operating in a separate part of the pitch, Matic was often outnumbered by the hugely disciplined Dean Hammond and Andy King, who played like two men roped together on a mountain in the first half. When the trio of attacking players do not track back Chelsea can end up effectively playing with just one central midfielder and Matic was stretched here at times. Oscar played a superb pass to Branislav Ivanovic in the build up to the opening goal, freeing the right-back to jink inside superbly and tee up Costa. But Mourinho will surely focus more this week on Oscar’s interaction with Fábregas and the need to cover one another in those tight central areas.
Behind the midfield Chelsea’s defence looks resilient as ever, and Ivanovic was hugely effective pushed further forward in the second half. His relentless pressure on that flank contrasted dramatically with the loss of focus on Leicester’s right side that allowed Eden Hazard to wander inside – and pause just long enough to suggest: don’t you know who I am? You really can’t give me this kind of space you know – before curling home the second goal on 77 minutes.
Afterwards Mourinho promised Chelsea would continue to evolve as what he calls “a pass- and-move team”. “We won’t give up this style because these are the players we have and when you buy players like Cesc it is not to play another way,” he said. “Football is about adapting to everything, but the reality is that our way of thinking about football, the DNA we want in our team, is this one we are trying to show.”
Man of the match Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea)